The Underground Cookbook Barbara Grunes
Mar 01, 2018

Let’s Talk About Turnips

By MaryAnn Miano

The Underground Cookbook Barbara Grunes

Root vegetables may have strange shapes, earthy smells, and weird surfaces that present themselves as an ordinary everyday type of food. They are anything but ordinary, however. The “root” of these veggies is one of high nutrition with a high fiber, complex carbohydrate packed with vitamins and minerals.

Roots have played a major role in helping the fittest to survive. In ancient times, humans ate roots when the hunters had a bad day. In cold climates, root vegetables were cultivated and harvested to see people through the winter.

Turnips, or Brassica rapa, are one of the earliest cultivated vegetables and members of the cabbage (cruciferous) family. They may have originated in northern Europe in about 2000 BC. Turnips were an important food for the Romans especially in the time of the Republic, before their Empire spread and brought in rich agricultural lands.

The turnip spread from the classical world through Asia to north China, where it had become a common vegetable well before the medieval period in Europe, and it was taken from China to Japan about 1,300 years ago.

The Chinese have traditionally cooked turnips by roasting. The high temperature increases the sweetness of the vegetable by converting some of its starch to a sweeter fare. In Europe, the French have devoted most care to turnips, and there are various parts of France which are famous for growing especially good ones. The French pick turnips young, in early summer, when no larger than a small orange, and braise them or fry and glaze them. They are the traditional accompaniment to certain dishes. English-speaking countries seem to prefer plain boiled turnips using often large and old winter specimens.

Pickled turnips, on the other hand, have been immensely popular in the Arab world, usually colored pink by putting a bit of beetroot in the pickling jar. Turnips are also pickled in Korea. In China, they are sun dried in strips, then salted or preserved in soy sauce; round turnips are sometimes preserved whole. In Japan the leaves and roots are used for pickles, but the root is also boiled and eaten with miso.

The most common variety of turnips is white with purplish streaks. The first crops are sold with the edible green tops. Those green tops contribute calcium and iron to the diet, and the root itself is really the base of the stem of the turnip and is used as a storage organ for the plant. Try to avoid very large turnips. At the grocery store, choose firm, unwrinkled turnips with smooth skin. Remove the greens and refrigerate them for up to one week. Refrigerate unwashed turnips in a plastic bag also for one week. Freeze them cubed, blanched or whole, fully cooked, for 8-10 months.

Turnips have a peppery flavor stemming from mustard oil which releases more strongly the longer the root is cooked. Because of their distinctive flavor, turnips go well with robust foods like pork, pot roast, lamb shanks, and game. Turnips are best when they are about two inches in diameter. They grow above ground, with the purple on their skin showing the “earth line.”

Give turnips a little love and turn up for a meal made with turnips!

Turnips, Sweet Potatoes and Couscous

4 tablespoons (1/4 cup) olive oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
6 medium-sized turnips, peeled and quartered
3 medium-large sweet potatoes, peeled and quartered
1 small rutabaga, peeled and diced
1 ½ cups pitted prunes
2 cups chicken or vegetable broth
2 teaspoons ground cumin
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground allspice
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
Freshly ground pepper

3 cups instant couscous
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) margarine or butter
6 scallions with tender green tops, chopped
½ cup toasted pine nuts
½ cup dried currants

Heat oil in a large saucepan or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add garlic; cook and stir for 1 minute. Do not let garlic brown. Add turnips, sweet potatoes, and rutabaga; cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in prunes, broth, and seasonings. Heat to boiling; reduce heat. Cook covered over low heat until vegetables are tender, about 30 minutes.

While vegetables are cooking, prepare couscous according to package directions. Make sure that you stir constantly, to avoid lumps. Mix in margarine and scallions. Mound couscous on platter; surround with hot cooked vegetables. Sprinkle pine nuts and currants on top. Serve hot.

(Recipe from Roots: The Underground Cookbook, by Barbara Grunes & Anne Elise Hunt, page 180-181. Publisher: Chicago Review Press, Inc., 1993.)